Faculty of Biological Sciences

Research Bulletin

Creating energy from light and air - new research on biofuel cells

8th May 2012

Researchers are studying how to make electricity from electrodes coated in bacteria, and other living cells, using light or hydrogen as the fuel

Creating energy from light and air - new research on biofuel cellstitle=The aim of the research long-term is to develop more efficient biofuel cells, seen as the future of electronics. Because biofuel cells are powered by readily available biological materials, they have the potential to be used indefinitely when electricity is required at places where is it not possible to replace a battery or recharge them.

Most biofuel cells create electricity using enzymes that process glucose, but the Leeds research will focus on bacterial enzymes that can harness light or hydrogen gas to create energy. The work is funded by a £1.42m grant from the European Research Council.

Lead researcher, Dr Lars Jeuken, from the University's Faculty of Biological Sciences, says:"Technology that creates an electrical signal from a biochemical reaction is already in commercial use, for example in blood glucose biosensors. However, developing an efficient biofuel cell that can create sufficient electricity for general use has proved much more difficult. This is mainly because the systems developed to date have only limited control of how inorganic materials and biological molecules interact."

"Our research combines state of-the-art surface physics, colloid and organic chemistry, membrane biology and electrochemistry to develop electrodes with complete control of the biochemical interactions needed to create electricity. We now want to apply this to membrane proteins to generate energy from light and hydrogen."

"In their simplest form, biofuel cells have two electrodes, one which removes electrons from a fuel - for instance glucose or hydrogen - whilst the other donates electrons to molecules of oxygen, making water. When these are connected by a wire, they form a circuit, resulting in an electrical current."

Dr Jeuken and his team have extensive experience in making electrodes that directly interact with enzymes located in the membranes that surround cells. This new project will begin by applying this technique to two specific groups of enzymes, one which harnesses light and the other, hydrogen. These are found in membranes of chloroplast - the parts of cells which conduct photosynthesis - or bacterial cells, both of which have promising applications in biofuel cells. The final part of the project will aim to connect electrodes to the membranes of living bacterial cells.

"Not only will this help scientists understand the role of different enzymes in making energy, but how best to capture and use this energy in electrical applications", says Dr Jeuken.

Dr Jeuken's research will also contribute to a new Interdisciplinary Centre for Microbial Fuel Cells (ICMFC), set up jointly between the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. The Centre will bring together chemists from York, biophysicists such as Dr Jeuken from Leeds and engineers from Sheffield, to work together on improving the performance of microbial fuel cells, using a combination of synthetic biology and nanoengineering.

Image information and credits: An artistic representation of submicron lipid vesicles filled with fluorescent molecules. The vesicles contain enzymes which convert oxygen to water and transport protons outside the vesicles in the process. The proton transport changes the pH inside the vesicles, which is seen by a change in fluorescence. Reproduced by permission of Lars J C Jeuken and The Royal Society of Chemistry from Soft Matter, 2011, 7, 49-52, DOI: 10.1039/C0SM01016B


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Ryan Seipke, Royal Society (Nov 2014), £13,700

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Les Firbank, Joe Holden, BBSRC (Oct 2014), £210,302

Darren Tomlinson and colleagues in Chemistry and Pathology, anatomy and Tumour Biology, Dr Hadwen Trusy (Oct 2014), £194,475

Paul Knox, EU (Oct 2014), £167,229

Martin Stacey and colleagues in Medicine & Health, Pfizer (Oct 2014), £90,453

Darren Tomlinson and colleagues in Experimental Oncology, YCR (Oct 2014), £69,480

Andrew Macdonald, Jamel Mankouri, Kidney Research Fund UK (Oct 2014), £58,878

Mike McPherson and colleagues in Dentistry and Engineering, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2014), £58,437

Dave Westhead and colleagues in Experimental Haemotology, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (Sep 2014), £281,424

Emmanuel Paci and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £636,759

Andrew Peel, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £371,598

Lars Jeuken, Stephen Evans, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £333,684

Lars Jeuken, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £313,463

Michelle Peckham, Mark Harris, Rao Sivaprasadarao, Eileen Ingham, Nic Stonehouse, Nikita Gamper, Wellcome Trust (Sep 2014), £192,763

Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Aug 2014), £355,253

Stuart Egginton, BHF (Aug 2014), £271,094

Darren Tomlinson, Mike McPherson, Technology Strategy Board (Aug 2014), £98,665

Peter Henderson, Leverhulme Trust (Aug 2014), £15,222

Mike McPherson (and colleagues in the School of Chemistry), EPSRC (Jul 2014), £819,880

Peter Stockley, Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Jul 2014), £455,787

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Ryan Seipke, British Society Antimicrobial Chemistry (Jun 2014), £11,960

John Trinick, BHF (Jun 2014), £222,614

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Jon Lippiat, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (May 2014), £125,174

Christine Foyer, Royal Society (May 2014), £24,000

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